Mongolian traditional games can be divided into two general types, on the basis of their general from; games which are played using simple and readily-available materials such as stone, sticks, or animal bones, and games which are played using objects created by artistic means, namely with painted or carved pieces. The games of the first category are characterized by a close figurative connection with natural and the herding lifestyle, often having a ritual or symbolic element to their playing, and by a relative simplicity of their rules of play. The games of latter category-which include cards, chess, dominoes, and interlocking puzzles-are symbolically associated with social and artistic activities and are usually more sophisticated, requiring greater intellectual skill in their playing.
Of the games played with ready and natural materials, the simplest is ail ger (family home). The game is played with stones, much in the same way as children in western countries play “house” with dolls: a small circle of stones is set up to represent a ger; further stones are placed inside in to represent furniture and household objects; and stone of different shapes and colors are collected outside the “home” to represent the family’s herd. Ail ger has an important symbolic aspect, as a traveler who comes across an arrangement for such a game must customarily add a stone to represent a new animal, symbolically increasing the size of the family’s herd and thus bringing good luck. Some arrangement of stone families have been said to exist for several centuries, as the layout of stone is not only left intact but fact renewed by each passerby.
The most unique Mongolian game is Shagai, or anklebones, which are as name suggests, is played using the cleaned and polished anklebones of sheep. Each of the four sides of anklebone represents a different animals-horse, sheep, camel, and goat-and although there are many games which can be played with bones, in general the objective is to collect the most anklebones by throwing or flicking the bones, with different consequences if they land on each of the four sides. In additional to being a ready pastime for herding families, shagai has an important symbolic significance. A large family with many animals will, over time, have the occasion to collect very large number of anklebones, as a consequence of which the possession of a large number of anklebones has come to be considered a symbol of prosperity. In earlier times, families which managed to collect more anklebones than they needed would select an auspicious day to go to play the game of “multicoloured turtle” on the top of a mountain, leaving the bones afterwards as an offering to mountain or to sky.
One of the most common games played with shagai is the “horse race”, for two or more player. Several anklebones are lined up in a row to represent the racetrack, to the side of which bones are placed to represent each player’s horse. The players take turns tossing anklebones; they can move their horse one every anklebone that lands as a “horse side’. The first player to reach the end of racetrack and return is winner.
The most symbolically rich game in Mongolian society is the alag melkhii, or “multicolored turtle”. The game is considered to bring good luck and prosperity to the family and fertility to its animals, in additional to providing entertainment, if its is played by a family while bringing in the new year.It is played with number if bones corresponding to one of the auspicious number in the Buddhist faith-most often 81 or 108. The placement of the bones represents the five elements and colors in addition to the body of the turtle itself, which is viewed in traditional Mongolian iconography as the symbol of the cosmos. Bones from different parts of the turtle or surrounding five elements are taken by players on each turn corresponding to the throw of a die. Once all the parts of the turtle’s body have been collected by the players the game concludes, with the player in possession of the most bones winner.
Games played using carved or painted pieces include cards, chess, dominoes, and Khorol (a game similar to dominoes, using the twelve animals of zodiac and Buddhist symbolic). The pieces used in these games were traditionally created by common people themselves, thus constituting an important part of Mongolian folk arts. Of these games chess remains one of the most popular, as well as one of the oldest traditional games- some Mongolian scholars claim that chess in fact originated in Mongolia. The pieces of Mongolian chess sets characteristically depict nobles, horses, camels, oxcarts, and other identifiable elements of Mongolian life. Mongolian chess is more similar to the European then the Chinese version of the game, but there are several important differences in the rules-for example, only the pawn in the front Queen is allowed to move two spaces on the first move, and the Queen is only permitted to move one space at a time when moving diagonally.
The sports are also given an honored place in Mongolian society, with competitions typically held during Naadam festivals in the “Three manly sports”- archery, horse racing and wrestling. These three sports can be clearly identified with skills and attributes required of Mongolian man in the middle ages and earlier, when such competitions first developed; archery was an important skill in hunting and warfare; excellent horsemanship was essential in military campaigns and in routine herding life; and wrestling was a test of the man’s strength, quickness, and size, seen as being the most important of male qualities at a time when success was measured by physical power and dexterity. Mongolian wrestling is unique in that there are no weight divisions the objects is simply to make one’s opponent’s knees, back, or bottom touch the ground, using any of a number of different traditional moves(mekh). In Mongolian horse races, horses are raced in groups of several hundred at a time, following a straight course over a distance of 15-20 k. Horse racing dates back at least to Hun period, when horse and camel races are recored to have occurred.